Picture it: a cool, bubbling, crystal clear mountain spring. Nothing could be so pure or refreshing, right? That's the sales pitch being given right now by proponents of "raw" water - water that has not been treated or filtered and can cost upwards of $25 a gallon. They claim it's better to drink water the way "nature intended." However, in many cases nature intends to make you sick.
"Water is essential for life, but water can also spread illness when it is contaminated with dangerous microbes or chemicals," said Andrew Pavia, MD, an infectious disease specialist with University of Utah Health. "In many parts of the world, the lack of safe drinking water kills hundreds of thousands of children every year."
Unsafe drinking water isn't just in developing nations, either. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks outbreaks of waterborne illnesses each year. Between 2013-2014 (the most recent period published) there were 42 outbreaks, 1,009 illnesses, 124 hospitalizations and 13 deaths.
These are only the cases of multiple illnesses - so the number of individual illnesses or deaths could be much higher. "These numbers also don't look at the long-term effects of things like lead poisoning in water," said Pavia. "So, clearly, the CDC's numbers are only the tip of the melting iceberg."
The illnesses you can get from drinking contaminated water range from those that cause short-lived stomach problems to those that can cause death. The very young, elderly, and those with compromised immune systems are most at risk for complications from these illnesses. "These illnesses can cause extreme dehydration and Legionella in water can cause pneumonia," said Pavia. "For people who are not able to fight off infection, these can be very dangerous."
Those selling "raw" water claim that the alternative is true - that unfiltered water can actually boost your immune system with "probiotics" and "minerals." They claim that water that has been purified and filtered is, in their words, "dead." Of course, they are also trying to turn a profit. "We talk about lakes and rivers becoming dead when they are too polluted to support fish and plants," said Pavia. "This concept makes no sense for treated drinking water."
The bottom line is this: If you have access to clean, filtered water you should be drinking it. It doesn't matter if the water is crystal clear or is coming from a secret mountain stream. If it hasn't been filtered you are putting yourself at risk. "Water that looks clear can still be contaminated," said Pavia. "You can see gross contamination and you should avoid cloudy water, but you can't see chemicals, bacteria, parasites or viruses with the naked eye. You can't know if there is a dead cow upstream from your clear stream or spring"
Of course, there are times that you shouldn't trust what is coming out of your tap. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan alerted the nation to that reality. However, these instances are not widespread. "The sudden appearance of cloudiness or a new smell or taste could be a sign of contamination," said Pavia. "If in doubt, you can call your department of health or department of public works."